November 3, 2008 / 8:10 AM / 10 years ago

Yiddish revival creates rift with Hebrew speakers

COPAKE, New York (Reuters) - Hebrew is the language of the state of Israel and the Bible, but a growing number of Jews around the world are reclaiming Yiddish as the language of their culture, creating a rift with some Hebrew speakers.

Kreyndl Neuberg, age two and a half and wearing a T-shirt that reads "meydele," or "young girl" in Yiddish, stands between Sholem Burshtin (L) and Mekhayele Burshtin (R) as the three work on an art project at Yiddish Week in Copake, New York, August 24, 2008. REUTERS/Helen Chernikoff

Before the Holocaust, Stalinist persecution and mass assimilation, Yiddish — a fusion of German, Hebrew, Slavic and other languages — was the daily language of 11 million people.

While Yiddish words like nosh and schlep live on and have been absorbed into everyday English, outside ultra-orthodox Jewish communities it is considered a dead language. Not so, says a group of passionate Jewish parents, many of them in the United States, who are making Yiddish their children’s first language.

“Tsi kenen mir koyfn ayzkrem itst,” said Itsik Leyb Eakin Moss, 5 1/2, asking for his mother for ice cream.

“OK, mir kenen yo koyfn ayzkrem,” she replied.

The Eakin Moss family were among 150 people from around the world, including 20 under age 10, gathered in Copake, New York, in late August for a week of lectures, bonfires, films and games — all in Yiddish.

Yiddish came into being about 1,000 years ago, when Jews settled in Germany, said Paul Glasser, a dean at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.

“Kenen mir koyfn,” or “can we buy,” is of German origin. “Tsi,” a word that introduces a yes-no question, is probably derived from the Polish “czy,” while “ayzkrem” is a more recent borrowing from English, Glasser said.

Parents contend that Yiddish enriches their family life and Jewish experience to a degree that surpasses even Hebrew. But family, friends and acquaintances have reacted badly, even angrily, at these parents’ choice of Yiddish.

Itsik Leyb’s grandparents fretted — unnecessarily, it turned out — that they would not be able to speak with him, said his mother, Khane Eakin Moss, 35, who like her husband is a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Why not Hebrew, is another common and often aggrieved query. Israel’s earliest Jewish-European settlers revived Hebrew, dormant as a spoken language for 2,000 years, and made it one of the country’s official languages in 1948.

“Yiddish was perceived by the Zionist as the language of victimhood,” said Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, author of a book called Resurrecting Hebrew.

Jennifer Wollock, a professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, remembers an encounter with a student from Israel, who asked why Wollock would have anything to do with Yiddish.

“She was very blunt. She was young. I was very impressed with the power of this threat,” Wollock said.

Wollock said Jewish literacy requires both Yiddish and Hebrew. She and her husband speak Yiddish to their twin sons and daughter because their ancestors and family spoke it, she said.

Wollock’s maternal grandfather, born Itzik-Tsvi Stutinsky, emigrated to Canada from East Prussia around 1914 and made his children study Yiddish with the rabbi in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Stephen Cohen, 45, a tecnhical writer and calligrapher from East Windsor, New Jersey, who was at the Yiddish retreat, reverses the question posed by Hebrew backers. Why Hebrew, he asks, when Yiddish is the ancestral tongue of most American Jews?

“I wanted to give my children something that whenever they opened their mouth, something Jewish would come out,” said Cohen, who studied Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania.

Zackary Sholem Berger, 35, translator of “Di Kats der Payats,” the Yiddish version of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat,” takes a similar view.

“I’m all for my kid learning Hebrew, but Yiddish is a diaspora language just like I’m a diaspora Jew,” Berger said.

Family life in Yiddish requires a dictionary, said Cohen as he watched his daughter swim.

“In class, they don’t teach you how to say, ‘I need to change your diaper,’” said Cohen, who relied on a Yiddish-English dictionary entitled “Trogn, Hobn, un Friike Kinder-Yorn,” or “Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Early Childhood.”

Beyond diaper age, dictionaries become less useful. Yiddish usually yields to English during math homework help sessions with her father, said Leah Whiteman, 17.

Also, most older offspring mutiny.

“I think it was just really to (annoy) the parents,” said Leah’s sister, Shifra, who is 20.

Yosl Kurland, 62, said Yiddish is on the defensive in his house because his 14-year-old son is boycotting it, and because their English is still richer than their Yiddish.

“There are some things for which we don’t have the words in Yiddish. There are words, but we don’t have them,” said Kurland, a musician drawn to Yiddish by its songs.

But Reyna Schaechter, 13, whose grandfather wrote the dictionary for parents, said she has all the words she needs, including juicy idioms to express adolescent anger.

“Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele, mitn kop in dr’erd,” or “You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!” is among her favorites.

Yiddish advocates admit they cannot resurrect the Yiddish world at its heyday, said Joshua Fishman, an emeritus professor at Yeshiva University with a specialty in the languages of stateless peoples.

All Wollock, Berger and Cohen can do is sustain it, Fishman said. Their fervor and willingness to sacrifice will keep the language vibrant, but small.

“I wouldn’t say their days are numbered,” Fishman said. “Such predictions are usually more wrong than right. They don’t take into account that people are atypical. There will always be atypical people.”

Reporting by Helen Chernikoff; Editing by Eddie Evans

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